Magazine article Newsweek

Hiding (and Seeking) Messages on the Web: Al Qaeda Uses the Web as a Communications Network

Magazine article Newsweek

Hiding (and Seeking) Messages on the Web: Al Qaeda Uses the Web as a Communications Network

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin Soloway, Rod Nordland and Barbie Nadeau

One day last October, an intelligence-community analyst noticed something strange about a radical Islamist Web site she had been monitoring for several months. A previously open, innocuous part of the site was suddenly blocked. She checked her notes, found the old address for the link and typed it in--to find an otherwise empty page commanding in Arabic, missionaries attack!

Other "hidden" pages on the site included seemingly nonsensical phrases and quotations from the Qur'an --coded instructions for Qaeda operatives and their supporters. U.S. intelligence discovered Al Qaeda uses the Web as a communications network. Analysts believe Al Qaeda uses prearranged phrases and symbols to direct its agents. An icon of an AK-47 can appear next to a photo of Osama bin Laden facing one direction one day, and another direction the next. Colors of icons can change as well. Messages can be hidden on pages inside sites with no links to them, or placed openly in chat rooms. The messages and patterns of symbols are given to analysts at the CIA and National Security Agency to decipher.

The operators of these sites, working from Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the gulf states and Britain, are sophisticated in their computer tradecraft. "These guys are no fools," says an intelligence source.

Much of the intelligence from the sites comes from "traffic analysis." Analysts say they have seen "surges" in traffic since 9-11, in many cases prior to attempted attacks. …

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